The Sacrificial Altar by Gertrude Atherton
LOUIS BAC drifted like a gray shadow through the gray streets of
San Francisco. Even the French colony, one of the most homogeneous
units of the city, knew little more of him than the community at
large. He was the son of one famous restaurateur and the grandson of
another; he had been sent to a Lycee in Paris at the age of twelve,
graduated from the University of Paris at twenty-two, and returned to
San Francisco upon the death of his father a year later. The French
colony were surprised that he did not go back to Paris after selling
the restaurant--his energetic mother had pre-deceased her
husband--but buried himself in the old Bac home behind the
eucalyptus-trees on the steepest hillside of the city; otherwise his
return and himself attracted no attention whatever until he flung his
hat into the international arena.
Both his father, Henri Bac II., and his shrewd mother, Antoinette,
had been agreed upon giving their studious ascetic little son a true
American's chance to rise in the world, and, acting on the advice of
their chief patron and the leader of the French colony, M. Cesar
Dupont, who offered his escort, had sent the boy to the College Louis
le Grand. They never saw their only child again; but although Louis
had been reticent of speech, he proved a very prodigal with his pen.
As the years passed it became evident--the entire French colony read
these letters--that his goal was belles-lettres and that he was
practising on his family. Finally, after many mutations his style
became so formal and precise that M. Dupont became alarmed and,
during his next visit to Paris, invited the young man to
Louis by this time was eighteen, of medium height, as thin as all
overworked, underfed, underoxygenated Lycee boys, with large gray
eyes that were rarely raised, a long pale face, a long thin nose, a
small thin-lipped mouth. The brow was abnormally large, the rest of
the head rather small. It was not an attractive personality, M.
Dupont reflected--he had not seen Louis for several years--but the
boy carried something uncommon in his head-piece, or he, Cesar
Dupont, fashionable merchant and bon viveur, had studied the craniums
of a thousand San Francisco geniuses in vain.
He had taken his guest to the Restaurant de la Tour d'Argent, and
while the duck's frame was being crushed he asked, abruptly:
"Have you given a thought to your future career, Louis? Of course
you know you will not be obliged to drudge, but to be a professor of
French literature is not without its eclat, and, I fancy, more in
your line than commerce."
Louis's lip curled. "I have no more intention of being a professor
than of being a merchant," he said in his cold, precise voice. "I
"Ah!" M. Dupont drew a sigh of relief. He had feared the boy would
be forbiddingly reticent. "I hoped as much from your letters. Your
refinement of mind and style are remarkable for a man of your years.
Shall you write plays?"
A faint color had invaded the youth's cheeks under this considered
flattery, and when he lifted his deeply set gray eyes to M. Dupont's
it was almost with the frankness of man to man. But he was intensely
shy, and although more at his ease with this handsome, genial patron
of his family, he made his confidences without warmth.
"No. I shall write the novel. The dramatic form does not appeal to
"Ah! Yes. I am not surprised. Your style is certainly more
narrative--descriptive. But to be a novelist, my son, you must have
seen a great deal of life. You must know the great
world--unless--perhaps--you contemplate writing romance?"
Again the delicate lip opposite curled, and Louis almost choked
over his morsel of duck. "Romance? No, Monsieur. I am a realist by
temperament and mental habit. Nor do I need the great world. Only one
thing interests me--crime."
"Crime? Mon Dieu!" The amiable merchant almost choked in his turn,
although he savored his duck more slowly than his Lycee guest.
"Crime! But you are too young, my son, to be interested in anything
so grim. Life is to enjoy. And how can you enjoy with your mind like
"We are not all made to enjoy in the same fashion. I enjoy
intensely reading through old volumes of criminal records and
trials--my master in psychology has kindly arranged that I shall have
access to them. And I read with the greatest interest the details of
current criminology. I shall never care for society, for I am too
timid and dislike women. But I love the lonely grandeur of nature,
and music, and great books and pictures. Have no fear, Monsieur, my
mind is not polluted. It is purely scientific, this interest; the
psychology of crime happens to appeal to my peculiar gifts."
"But--that is it--your gifts are literary--but yes! I do not like
the idea of wasting them on that lamentable subdivision of human
society which one ignores save when held up by a footpad. With but
few exceptions it has appealed only to the inferior order of writing
talent. Even in France the masters do not condescend. With them crime
is an incident, not a motif."
"Has it occurred to you, Monsieur, that without the
"Oh yes, perhaps--but you--"
"I am young and unknown? Of what author has that not at least once
been said? I purpose to write novels--not mere stories--in which
character and life shall be revealed in the light of the boldest and
the subtlest crimes--murder preferably--and executed in a form and
style above cavil--I hope! Oh, I hope! Moreover, I shall write my
books in two languages--I have taken special courses in English. In
that, too, I shall be unique."
"Be careful of that style of yours, my son. It is growing a little
too academic, and I, a Frenchman, say that! It would do for the
essay, and win the praise of the expiring generation of critics, and
the younger but non-creative formalists, but I infer you wish to be
read by the public. You would also make money as well as achieve
fame. Is it not?"
"Quite so. My father wishes that I live until I am thirty in
California and vote--I, mon Dieu! But I shall follow his wishes. Then
I shall buy a chateau here in France, for our chateaux are
incomparable in beauty. Fame, but yes. It would make my nostrils
quiver. But all that is as nothing to the joy of writing. Then my
soul almost sings. I am almost happy, but not quite."
He paused and his brow darkened. He raised his eyes and stared
past his anxious host, far into some invisible plane of tormentingly
elusive dreams. M. Dupont wisely remained silent, and Louis resumed,
abruptly: "When I shall write as spontaneously as the spring bubbles
or the ice melts, when my brain hardly knows what my pen is doing,
when I experience that terrific uprush that would drown the more
conscious parts of the intellect were it not for the perfect mastery
of technique--that is it, monsieur! I am still an infant with my
tools. Do not permit my style to cause you anxiety. It is merely in
one stage of experiment. I shall not write a line for publication
until I am four-and-twenty. I shall send forth my first professional
novel on the third of October--my birthday--1900. Meanwhile, I enter
the university this year, and take the course in literature. At
twenty-two I shall graduate and take my Ph.D. Then I shall serve for
a year as a reporter on a London newspaper. So shall I obtain perfect
freedom with the English language and that first-hand contact with
life which I realize is of a certain necessity. But after that no
more of the world. I hate it--realities. I wish to live in my mind,
my imagination; to spend every hour when I do not exercise for my
nerves or sleep to refresh my faculty, in writing, writing--that one
day shall be creating."
Louis carried out his programme to the letter, and published, in
1900--some five years before the terrific episode which it is my
melancholy privilege to chronicle--the first of those novels of crime
that commanded the sedate attention of the intellectual world.
Entombed as it were in the old house under the creaking
eucalyptus-trees, with a padlock on his gate, he had rewritten it six
times from the original draft--which, according to his method,
contained nothing but the stark outline of the plot, every detail of
which was thought out during long hours of exterior immobility. Three
successive sets of servants, mistaking this accomplishment in
petrifaction for a form of insanity which might at any moment express
itself in violence, left abruptly. Finally, old Madame Dupont
established in the kitchen wing an elderly Frenchman and his wife who
had once presided over a hotel for artists, and thereafter Louis had
peace and enforced nutrition.
It was during the long months of re-writing, of developing his
characters by a subtle secondary method of his own, of profound
analysis, and a phrasing which drew heavily on the adjectival
vocabulary of the critics later on, that he really enjoyed himself.
The last revision was devoted exclusively to the study and
improvement of every sentence in the long book; and indeed there is
no doubt that these months, from skeleton to trousseau, were, with
one tremendous exception, the happiest period of this unhappy
This book in its cold intellectual remoteness appealed as little
to Louis when he read it in print as it did to the public, and he set
himself grimly to work to pour red blood into the veins of his
characters and give his next book the rhythm of life as well as of
style. Once more he was hailed by the intellectuals, but fell short
of popular recognition, which, belonging himself to the intellectual
democracy, he estimated far above the few who win their little fame
by writing about the creators in art, or even above the artist
himself. He was determined to enthrall, to create the perfect
illusion. He scorned to be a cult, and when he saw himself alluded to
as a "high-brow-lit" he wept. But above all he passionately wished
for that intoxication in creation in which consciousness of self was
obliterated, the power, as he expressed it, to write one book charged
with the magnetism of a burning soul. He always felt, despite his
love of his work, as cold and deliberate as a mathematician. And yet
he spun his complicated plots with the utmost facility. There was no
more doubt of his talent, in the minds of those who wrote essays of
him in the reviews, than of his psychological insight and his
Poor Louis! Spurred on by his anxious and experienced friend, M.
Cesar Dupont, he made a meticulous attempt to adore a little French
milliner; but the young artist, who would have been a monk in the
Middle Ages and left to his monastery a precious heritage of
illuminated manuscripts, returned within the month to his art (with
abject apologies), set his teeth, and dissected the whole affair for
his next book; presenting Celeste, the pivot of a demoniacal crime,
in all the phases, common or uncommon, to a woman of her type. This
novel, which he estimated as his worst, achieved to his disgust a
certain measure of popularity, and the reporters hammered at his
gate. San Francisco, which after its first mild interest, had
forgotten him, awoke to a sense of its own importance, and besieged
M. Dupont, whose acquaintance extended far beyond the French colony,
for introductions. But Louis would have none of them. He went on
writing his novels, taking his walks at midnight, never leaving the
house otherwise unless to visit a bookstore or sit in the back of a
box at the play, and literally knew no one in the city of his birth
but old Madame Dupont, her son, and his two old servants, Philippe
and Seraphine. It was after his seventh novel, when he felt himself
growing stale, taking less pleasure in the mere act of writing, and
losing his hold on his good friends, the intellectuals, that he took
his trouble, as was his habit, to M. Cesar.
They dined in the old Dupont mansion on Nob Hill, built, like the
humbler home of the Bacs, in the city's youth, and alone, as Madame
was in bed with an influenza. M. Cesar as a rule entertained at his
club, and had a luxurious suite for bachelor purposes in a select
apartment-like house kept by a compatriot, but, like a dutiful son,
he made a pretense of sharing his mother's evening meal at six
o'clock, no matter where he might be dining at eight.
For an hour after dinner Louis paced up and down the library and
unburdened himself while M. Cesar smoked in the depths of a chair.
This confidence, which included rage at his own limitations, disgust
with the critics who encouraged such miserable failures as he, and
invective against fate for planting the fiction imp in what should
have been a purely scientific mind and then withholding the power to
electrify his talent with genius, was made about every seven months,
and M. Cesar always listened with deep concern and sympathy. He loved
Louis, who was sweet of nature and the most inoffensive of egoists,
but was beginning to regard him as hopeless. To-night, however, he
was admitting a ray of hope.
"Celeste was a failure," he said, abruptly. "It is no use for you
to try that sort of thing again. But live you must. I have given up a
dinner at the club to a distinguished guest from abroad to tell you
that I insist you give yourself one more chance."
"What is that?" Louis was alert and suspicious at once.
"Do you remember Berthe?"
"Berthe--your niece at Neuilly?"
"Ah--you do, although you would go to my brother's house so
"He had grown daughters of whom I was afraid, for their cruel
instincts were excited by my shyness. But Berthe was a little thing
then, very pretty, very sympathetic. I romped with her in the garden
"Just so. Berthe is now twenty, very handsome, very vivacious--a
great admirer of M. Louis Bac, celebrated novelist."
The young Frenchman stared at the elderly Frenchman. "Do you wish
that I should marry her?"
"For your sake. For hers--to marry a genius whose vampire mistress
is his art--ah, well, it is the fate of woman to be sacrificed when
they do not sacrifice us. And Berthe's would be no mean destiny. I
feel convinced that she alone could make you fall madly in
"I shall never see her again. I have lost my old longing for
Paris. What difference where a failure exists and plods? Besides, I
dreamed once of returning to Paris a master, not a mere formalist who
had won the approval of antiquarians."
"You shall meet her here."
"She arrives to-morrow."
"You have planned this, then, deliberately?"
"It is only a dream promising to come true. Not until now has my
brother relented and given his consent to Berthe's taking the long
journey. But friends were coming It is fate, my son. Try to fall in
love with her--but madly! I, who have loved many times, assure you
that the intoxication which tempts lesser men to rhyme should
stimulate your great gift to its final expression."
"But marry!" Louis was quite cold. "A wife in my house! Oh no, M.
Cesar; I should hate it and her."
"Not if you loved her. And Berthe has subtlety and variety."
"And is far too good for me. I should make a detestable
"Let her make the husband."
Once more Louis turned cold. "You desire that I shall meet her,
talk to her, cultivate her? Oh, God!"
"I mean that you shall go to my tailor to-morrow. My mother will
introduce Berthe to the Colony on Friday night. Its most
distinguished members will be present--bankers, journalists,
merchants, professional men of all sorts; young people will come in
for a dance after the dinner of twenty-four. You may run away from
the dance, but at the dinner you will sit beside Berthe."
This time Louis was petrified. "But no! No!"
M. Cesar rose and laid his hand solemnly on his young friend's
shoulder. "For your art, my son, for your divine gift. For both you
would lay down your life. Is it not? Another year of this unnatural
existence and you will go sterile. And what substitute for you in the
long years ahead? Your mind needs a powerful stimulant and at once.
The cup approaches your lip. Will you drink or will you turn it
"I'll drink if I can," said Louis, through his set teeth, "for
what you say is true. But I'd rather drink hemlock."
Louis sat at his bedroom window, for the moon was high and the
night was clear. The city that so often was shrouded to its
cobblestones in fog, its muffled ghostly silence broken only by his
creaking eucalyptus-trees, lay below him in all its bleak gray
outlines. But he was not looking at the city, although sensible for
the first time of the vast composite presence under the ugly roofs;
nor even at the high-flung beauty of Twin Peaks; he stared instead at
the cross on Calvary, that gaunt hill that rises above the cemeteries
of Lone Mountain. The cross stood out black and austere save when a
fog wraith from the sea drifted across it. The emblem of the cross
was in tune with his mood to-night, for he felt neither romantic nor
imaginative, but pervaded with fear and melancholy. The faith in
which he had been bred as a child had long since passed, and to him
the cross was merely the symbol of crucifixion.
His eye dropped from the cross to the dark mass of the Catholic
cemetery where his parents slept. If his writing faculty should
desert him, as M. Cesar had ruthlessly predicted, no power in either
world should condemn him to life. He would go out to Lone Mountain,
shut himself in the family vault, lie down on the stones, and either
drink poison or cut his wrists. This morbid vision had appealed to
him before, but never so insidiously as to-night: never before had
his spirits remained so persistently at zero as during the past week;
never before had their melancholy been darkened by fear, rent by
In spite of his shyness and dislike of women, not only had he
nerved himself to the ordeal of meeting Berthe Dupont, but worked
himself up to a real desire to fall in love with her, to experience
that tremendous emotion from inception to crescendo and liberate the
deep creative torrents of his genius. Not for a moment did he hope
that she would marry him. On the contrary, what he particularly
desired was that she should play with him, enthrall him, transform
him into a sentimental ass and a caldron of passion, then flout him,
condemn him to the fiendish tortures of the unsatisfied lover.
Six months at his desk of carefully nursed passion and torments,
and then, immortal fame!
Louis, who was very honest and as little conceited as an author
may be, had for some time believed, with his critics and M. Cesar,
that he would come into the full fruition of his gifts only after
some great, possibly terrific, adventure of the soul had banished
forever that curious lethargy that possessed the unexplored tracts of
Therefore had poor Louis gone to the tailor of his inexorable
mentor, and crawled up the hill on Friday night, his heart hammering,
his knees trembling, but his teeth set and his whole being a
desperate hope. He was willing to go to the stake. Through his
consciousness the outlines of another plot, subtle, intricate, vital,
hinting at characters who were personalities, but uncommonly misty
and slow to cohere, were wandering. Ordinarily his plots were as
sharply outlined as a winter tree against a frosty sky. But now! He
must tear up his soul by the roots and fill his veins with fire or
this new conception would dribble forth in an image so commonplace
that he would take it out to Lone Mountain and immure it with
The Dupont house was perched high above the cut that had made a
rough hillside into a bland street for the wealthy. The last
automobile was rolling away as Louis reached the long flight of
covered outer stairs that led up from the street to the house. He
walked even more slowly up that tunnel on end, hoping the company
would be in the dining-room when he arrived and he could slink into
his seat unnoticed.
The old butler, Jean-Marie, almost shoved him into the
drawing-room, and for a moment his terrors retreated before a wave of
artistic pleasure never before experienced in the house of Dupont.
The heavy old mahogany furniture, the bow-windows, even the clumsy
old candelabra were completely obliterated by a thousand American
Beauty roses. It was a bower of surpassing richness and distinction
for a group of women as handsome and exquisitely dressed as Louis had
ever seen in the foyer of the opera-house in Paris.
The moment old Madame Dupont, magnificent in brocade and a new
wig, espied him, she led the way to the dining-room, before M. Cesar
could introduce him to the eager Colony. This relieved Louis almost
to the pitch of elation, and he even exchanged a few words with his
partner after they were seated at the long table--covered with
Madame's historic silver and crystal--the while he covertly examined
the young lady on his left. Mademoiselle Berthe had been taken in by
the host and was chatting animatedly with M. Jules Constant, a young
banker, who sat opposite.
Louis observed with delight that she was more than pretty, and
realized that M. Cesar had with purpose restrained his enthusiasm.
Certainly it gave Louis a distinct throb of satisfaction to discover
for himself that the young girl was beautiful and of no common type.
She might be as practical as most Frenchwomen, but she looked
romantic, passionate, mysterious. The heavy lids of her large brown
eyes gave them depths and smoldering fires. Her soft brown hair, dark
but full of light, was dressed close to her small proud head. She had
a haughty little nose and a red babyish mouth filled with bright,
even teeth. Her complexion was olive and claret; her tall form round,
flexible, carried with pride and grace. The contrasts in that
seductive face were affecting her inflammable vis-a-vis
It was only when dinner was half over that Louis realized with a
shock which turned him as pale as his rival, M. Constant, that he
felt neither jealousy nor any other of the master passions. He had
talked alternately with Mademoiselle Berthe and the shy damsel on his
right, and he found the one as interesting as the other. He
appreciated that the young lady destined for him was intelligent, and
emanated a warm magnetism; moreover, she had both coquetry and
indubitable sincerity. Every man at the table was craning his neck,
and M. Constant looked ready to fight twelve duels.
And he, Louis Bac, felt nothing!...
Staring at Calvary, his mind drifted over the events of the past
week. He had seen Mademoiselle Berthe every day. On two separate
occasions he had talked with her alone in the Dupont library. He had
liked and admired her increasingly. He found her full of surprises,
subtleties; it seemed to him that just such a young woman had been
roaming the dim corridors of his brain, impatiently awaiting his
call; and as a wife she would be incomparable.
But he did not want a wife. He wanted a grande passion. And he
developed not a symptom. He felt not the least desire to impropriate
her. Of course there was but one explanation. He was incapable of
those profound and racking passions experienced once at least by
ordinary men. He was nothing but an intellect with a rotten spot
where fiction generated instead of those abnormal impulses that made
of men so inflicted social outlaws. Otherwise, he should be quite mad
over Berthe Dupont. Her beauty and charm were attracting attention
far beyond the French colony. It was Berthe for him or no one. And
alas! it was to be neither Berthe nor any one...
The moon flooded the sleeping city as the clocks struck one. Out
of that vast composite below, its imagination liberated in dreams, a
daring idea sprang, flew upward, darted into Louis's relaxed brain.
Its point wedged, quivered like an arrow. Louis himself quivered, but
with fright. Of love and woman he had no personal knowledge save for
his brief and shallow episode with Celeste, but of both he had the
accumulated knowledge of the masters and the insight of genius.
It was night--a beautiful, romantic night. Berthe was beautiful,
seductive at all times; what must she not be in the abandon of sleep?
If he could steal to her chamber, gaze upon her unconscious
loveliness, was it not categorical that he should be overwhelmed like
any ordinary man? To defy her scorn for a few poignant moments, then
rush forth repulsed and quite mad, to weep upon his floor until dawn!
He stared at the boards of his ascetic chamber with fascinated
eyes;...to writhe there, to beat the floor with his fists, to weep
like a good Frenchman...And he knew that she had gone to bed early
to-night, worn out with much gaiety.
He ran lightly down the stairs and let himself out of the house as
silently, although his servants slept far in the rear. Even at the
top of the hill not a policeman nor a chance pedestrian was in sight.
San Francisco, he knew, had a roaring night life, but at this hour
the domestic quarters were as silent as a necropolis.
Nor did he meet any one as he walked rapidly along Taylor Street
past the dwellings of the rich to the old-fashioned row of houses
perched high above the "cut." As he was within a foot of the Dupont
mansion he heard a taxicab in his wake, and darted within the
sheltering walls of the covered stair. The cab came to a halt before
the house opposite; a man with a black bag jumped out, and was
A doctor, of course; but Louis, to his surprise, discovered that
he was experiencing something like a thrill. If seen, he certainly
would be handed over to the police. It was, therefore, a moment of
real danger, and he almost laughed aloud as he discovered himself
enjoying it. Many times he had described, with the most searching
analysis, that sensation of fear during moments of imminent
detection--even that subtle thrill along the nerves--but he was in
search of an emotion that should shake his passions loose, and he ran
lightly up the stairs, dismissing even the agreeable idea that he was
also to experience the sensation of being his own housebreaker, so to
speak. When he reached the upper terrace he took off his shoes and
carried them to a little pagoda behind the house; it was possible
that he would have to make a hasty exit by way of Jones Street.
Before leaving his shelter he looked out warily; but the neighboring
houses were black, and behind the windows of the Dupont library was a
row of tall eucalyptus-trees planted as a windbreak. It was by one of
the library windows that Louis purposed to enter, for he knew that
its catch was broken; Jean-Marie's memory was old and
He raised the window without difficulty and stepped into the room.
It was impenetrably dark and full of furniture. On a pedestal was a
vase that had belonged to Napoleon, wired and fastened down as an
assurance against earthquake. But Louis knew every detail of that
room; he crept down its length without encountering a chair, and
opened the door.
In the hall a dim light burned. He listened intently, still with a
humorous sense that he felt as like a burglar as any he had ever
created. But he experienced no impulse to steal and complete the
chain of his sensations. His brain, which registered impressions
automatically, was quite normal.
He stole up the stair. Not a step creaked. The upper hall also was
dimly lit. He knew that Madame had given the jeune fille the room
next to hers, but the connecting door was sure to be closed, for the
old lady was a light sleeper and minimized disturbance.
There lay the danger. If Madame heard the slightest sound she
would ring the bell connecting with the servants' rooms in the
mansard. He tiptoed to her door. She was snoring gently. He walked as
softly to a door some ten feet down the hall and turned the knob. It
yielded, and he entered the room where Berthe Dupont slept. The young
lady was friendly to modern hygiene and the window stood wide open.
The radiant moonlight streamed in. Louis, his heart thumping, but his
head cool and his hands quiet, walked over to the bed. Berthe lay
with her arms tossed outward, her head thrown back, as if consciously
drawing attention to the classic outlines under the firm flesh. Her
magnificent dark hair streamed over the pillow.
It should have been an entrancing picture, but for some reason it
was not. In a moment Louis, with his inexorable eye for detail,
realized the peccancy. The young lady's classic face was slightly
swollen from sleep, and pallid; her lips were puffed, and blew out,
albeit noiselessly, as the regular breath exhaled.
Nevertheless, it was Berthe, and she slept. This was her bedroom,
her maiden bower, inviolate by man. She was at his mercy. Why, then,
did he not feel that intoxication of the senses, that unreckoning
fury of the male, that would have favored any young blood of the
French colony? He did not. He merely gazed resentfully at that
diminished beauty. His artistic soul curled up. Far from feeling the
sensations of the inexorable lover, his mind turned black with anger
both at her and at himself. He hated her unreasonably for
disappointing him, for failing to melt the ice in his blood. Well, he
had seen the last of her. To-morrow he would shut himself up once
more and by a supreme effort of will compel his brain to yield up its
He turned to leave the room, then shrugged his shoulders and
approached the bed, this time more stealthily. Why not give her a
fright? That would be something to the credit side of this fiasco,
which, he reflected with disgust, involved an insult to the best of
his friends. He would make her believe she was being murdered, then
get out while she was still too terrified and breathless to cry for
His first idea was to press his hands about her throat and choke
her gently, not even enough to leave a mark, but quite sufficient to
make her kick and writhe with terror. But in that case she would see
him--he had not even worn his hat. He picked up a pillow she had
tossed to the floor and pressed it against her face. She made a
sudden downward movement, gurgling. He pressed more firmly, his eye
measuring the distance to the door. But the gurgle affected him
oddly. He desired to stop it.
Suddenly he knew that she was awake. She not only attempted to
leap upward, but her strong hands clutched the pillow frantically. He
had not thought of her arms, of those strong, shapely hands he had
admired. With a quick catlike leap he was on her chest, his knees
hard against her lungs; he caught her hands in one of his, pressing
his other arm along that portion of the pillow that covered her nose
and mouth. The blood was running swiftly through his veins. His head
was light and full of pleasant noises. Suddenly he realized that the
tense, strong young body of the girl was relaxing, and he felt a joy
so fierce, so profound, so complete, that he could have shouted aloud
a welcome to his liberated soul and passions as they tore through
those ice barriers at last and found their transports in this sublime
act of taking life.
For Louis had forgotten his original intention merely to terrify.
The literary cultures in his brain had suddenly become personal and
imperative. He was as ruthless as man ever is when supreme desire and
opportunity coincide, whether the lust be for woman or the enemy on
the battle-field. He meant to kill Berthe Dupont and gratify the
clamoring male within him to the full. This was his moment. He was no
assassin by natural inclination, and but for this providential set of
conditions would have gone to his grave a little bourgeois, a
literary machine with as frail a hold on his talents as a singer on a
voice that had never been placed.
The body lay limp and flabby at last. He was about to remove the
pillow, but his artistic soul uncurled itself and made indignant
protest. He lifted the clammy hand and felt the pulse. It was still.
So was the heart to which he laid his ear briefly.
Although there was still that ecstatic riot in his veins, his
brain was by no means confused, and prompted his subsequent acts as
coherently as if he were at his desk, pen in hand. He listened at
Madame's door. She still slept rhythmically. He opened the drawers of
the bureau and chiffonnier and strewed the contents about the room.
In a compartment of the desk he found a loose pile of gold and notes.
He pocketed the gold, leaving the drawer open. He found Berthe's
jewel-box in another drawer, wrenched a few diamonds from their
setting and threw a brooch out of the window.
As he was about to leave he felt a sudden and different impulse
toward Madame's door. But he was above all things an artist. Why
repeat a great experience with possibly failing ardors? And in
satiety lay the terrible danger of finding himself at his desk
driving a pen heavy with reaction that should be tipped with
He returned through the silent house and out of it as noiselessly
as he had come. In the pagoda he tied his shoes properly lest the
dragging laces impede his progress or attract attention.
HE GAZED RESENTFULLY AT THAT DIMINISHED BEAUTY.
And then he heard some one coming stealthily up the stair from the
street. A policeman, of course! In an instant he had darted through
the tradesman's entrance in the back fence, down a narrow alley, and
was peering out into Jones Street. It was deserted.
The fog had rushed in from the Pacific. He encountered no one on
his return home. The windows of his own house were still black. He
stealthily replaced the chain insisted upon by his servants, then lit
the gas in his library and almost flew to his desk. Eight hours later
he was still there, and his old servants, weeping and shaking, gave
up trying to make him listen. During the next three months, indeed,
he might have been isolated on the highest peak of the Sierras.
Louis, after the twenty-four hours of deep recuperative sleep that
always followed the finish of a book, awoke to a familiar chorus: the
creaking of his eucalyptus-trees, the fog-horn of Sausalito, the
measured drip of the fog on his old-fashioned window-panes. But he
returned to his personal life with something more than the usual
reaction after a long period in the world of imagination; his
depression was so great that the divine happiness of the past five
months was blotted from his memory.
Then, not slowly, but with frightful abruptness, he understood. It
was not that he had forgotten the act of smothering Berthe Dupont
while writing under its inspiration, but that realities, himself,
were for the time non-existent. Now, in the deep depression of his
nerve centers following that long orgy of creation, he felt as if he
were falling down through an abyss of horror without hope and without
end. And while he experienced no regret for his act, since it had
given the world a masterpiece, nor any that he never should see the
beautiful girl again, he was filled with an emotional pity for her
that surprised himself. But then he was an artist, and he owed her so
A moment later and he nearly shrieked aloud. There was a heavy
tread on the stair. It was portentously slow and deliberate...Why had
he not been suspected before this?...Had M. Cesar used his
influence?...He, too, was an artist in his way...He cowered under the
bedclothes...The door opened. He heard the rattle of dishes.
Seraphine never allowed him to sleep more than twenty-four hours
As he sat up in bed he smiled wanly upon his devoted servitor and
smoothed his hair. "Good morning, ma vieille. Or is it afternoon? It
is good to return to that rational condition which enables me to
appreciate your excellent cooking."
Seraphine's gnarled old face grinned. "Ah, Monsieur, it is good to
see you no worse. But you are very pale and thin, alas! Although how,
then, in the name of all the saints, should you not be?"
Louis poured out the coffee with a steady hand. "Don't run away,"
he commanded. "Tell me the news. How is M. Cesar? And Madame Dupont?
And the charming Mademoiselle Berthe? Name of a name! but I have not
remembered their existence since the day I began my book."
"Oh, Monsieur! But O God!" She was about to squeeze a tear from
her aged ducts and rock her body, when the gossip in her lively old
mind gave a sniff of disdain and quenched the attempt at
retrospective grief. "I--I--stupid old woman that I am--I had
forgotten that you knew nothing--"
"Knew nothing?" Louis set down his cup. "Nothing has happened to
M. Cesar? Tell me at once!"
"Oh, not M. Cesar, grace a Dieu! But Mademoiselle! Oh, Monsieur!
"Did she die, that charming young lady? She seemed a marvel of
health." Louis loosened the soft collar of his night-gown, but his
tones merely betrayed a proper concern.
"Dieu! Dieu! If that were all! She was assassinated, that
beautiful young girl, just from Paris, and of an innocence, an
excellence, a respectability! And by a miserable villain who had seen
her take money from the bank that day and got in by the window that
old fool of a Jean-Marie had dared to neglect. And with a pillow!"
The voluble details convinced Louis that suspicion had not brushed
him in passing.
"And the assassin?" he demanded when Seraphine paused for breath.
"Whom do they suspect?"
"Suspect? But they caught him red-handed, the foul fiend. For that
we thank the good God."
"Caught him! Do you mean as he was in the act of smothering poor
"But no, Monsieur. He already had made his way down the stairs and
out of the house, enfin! But a policeman was in the garden waiting
for him. He had been told by some one who had seen the wretch sneak
up the covered way. But not too soon, alas! The assassin denied all,
of a certainty. He vowed he had been so terrified at the sight of the
young lady murdered in her bed that he ran away at once. But, oh! of
a great certainty, no one believed him. No, not one!"
"But it well could have been. Remember that I have written stories
to prove the criminal folly of condemning on circumstantial evidence
"Ah, yes, Monsieur, that is all very well in stories. But you see
this was life, and the man was caught by a real policeman."
"When is the man to be tried?"
"Tried? The man has been tried and hanged, Monsieur."
"But yes, Monsieur. Sometimes a murderer is hanged in San
Francisco, and this was a miserable, a tramp, with no money or
friends to make delay--grace a Dieu! But you are white as death,
Monsieur. Who am I to tell you this horrible story when you have just
come back from the dead, as it were--"
"It is true that I am overcome. But arrange my bath. I will dress
and go to M. Cesar. Oh, my God!"
"But yes, Monsieur."
For a few moments Louis hoped he was dead, that his ice-cold body
was yielding up his agonized spirit. He made a desperate effort to
rouse the sleeping artist and summon him to the rescue, but without
avail; the man was left alone to face the fact that he was a murderer
who had taken not one life, but two. And of the two he regretted the
friendless burglar the more poignantly.
The fundamental moral questions had never held debate in his
highly specialized brain. He had been brought up respectably and had
led so impersonal a life that he had obeyed the laws of society
automatically. But in this hour of awful revelation, while the artist
in him slept the sleep of the dead, he was merely the son of a long
line of excellent bourgeois ancestors and could have spat upon
himself as a pariah dog.
But in time he got up, bathed, dressed. He even paid his customary
visit to the barber. Then he turned his steps toward M. Cesar.
Madame Dupont had gone to Santa Barbara to recuperate after the
severe shock to her nerves. M. Cesar, unless dining out, would be at
his club. It was eight o'clock.
"Mr. Dupont," he was told, was in the dining-room. Louis gave
orders not to disturb him, and was shown into the library. A bright
fire burned. He was very cold. He sank limply into a deep chair
beside it and dropped his chin on his chest. His mind was too dull
for thought, but fully made up.
He was roused by a firm grip on his shoulder, and started up to
meet his old friend's tired but kindly eyes.
"But how is this?" cried M. Dupont, in genuine surprise. "It
cannot be that you have finished the great work in three months? I
did not expect to see you for another two. But of a certainty you
write with more and more facility--"
"I wish to see you alone. I have something horrible to say."
"Come up-stairs. My chambers are being done over and I am staying
here." M. Dupont, who had given the young author a keen, appraising
glance, spoke soothingly and drew a trembling arm through his own.
"Mon Dieu, Louis, but you are thin! How long do you fancy you can
keep this up? I feared for your gifts. Now I fear for something more
precious still. You look on the verge of collapse."
"It does not matter. Take me quickly to your room."
M. Dupont, who never hurried, and always carried his portly form
with a certain stateliness, led Louis out of the library and up one
flight of the broad staircase to his temporary quarters. Already,
Louis automatically noted, his club bedroom had the intimate and
sybaritic look of his famous apartment. He had brought to it silver
and crystal for his bureau and little buffet, framed photographs of
beautiful women, a Meissonier, and several easy-chairs.
He pushed Louis into the deepest of the chairs, poured out a stiff
whisky-and-soda, and stood over his guest until the glass was empty.
Then he lighted his second after-dinner cigar and settled himself
with the first sensation of anticipatory humor he had felt for many
weeks. Louis always interested him and not infrequently amused him,
with no effort on the part of that most unhumorous mind.
Louis lay back in his chair for a moment, responding to the glow
of the spirits. He was still very cold.
"Now, my son, what is it? You may or may not have heard of the
terrible tragedy that has devastated my home, but that can
"Oh no, Monsieur, it is not to wait! It is of that I have come to
"But, of course, old Seraphine would have told you the moment you
would listen. It is like you to come at once, although God knows I
should have been grateful for your sympathy during that terrible
"Oh, Monsieur! I cannot stand it!" Louis sprang to his feet and
strode about the room. "It is something more awful still that I have
come to tell you. How am I to do it? You, who have always been so
kind! My only friend! My God, what a return! But of that I never
thought. I was obsessed. It was an inhibition."
"Dear Louis! Come to the point. Are you quoting from your new
"M. Cesar, you do not know what you are dodging! I will try to put
my confession in a few words. It was I--I--Louis Bac,
who--who--killed Mademoiselle Berthe. There! It is said!"
"My poor boy!" M. Dupont rose and poured out another
whiskey-and-soda. "Drink this and I will put you to bed in a room
close by--drunk, hein! for the first time in your life."
But Louis shook his head. Then he turned upon his friend eyes so
beseeching and so abject that the ready tears rose to the eyes of the
"When did Seraphine tell you this dreadful thing?"
"An hour or two ago."
"Just after you had awakened from your long sleep?"
"No wonder your insatiable faculty immediately began on another!
God knows it is not a subject for jest, but I cannot lose you, too.
You will go to bed now--"
"Oh, Monsieur, you must believe me! I tell you I smothered
Mademoiselle Berthe with a pillow--"
"Tut! tut! That was all in the papers. I can see old Seraphine's
ghoulish delight in recreating that grisly scene. And she told you,
of course, that the drawers were open, the contents strewn
"No; or if she did I have forgotten. God! how the moonlight
He flung off M. Cesar's hand, and almost ran about the room while
his uneasy host felt of his biceps.
"Will you not believe me?" shrieked Louis.
"Perhaps, dear boy, when you have slept on it--"
"Oh, don't talk as if you thought me insane. If you refuse to
believe me I shall go from here and give myself up. I intend to do
that anyhow, but I wished to confess to you first. That was your
"Do you know what would happen if you went to a police station and
denounced yourself? You would first be laughed at and then, if you
persisted, sent to a lunatic asylum. It is well you came to me first.
Why, the murderer has been hanged. The state would refuse to reopen
"Then it is between you and me?"
"And a doctor if you do not go to bed at once."
"Oh, but you must believe in me!" Another memory flashed into his
stimulated mind, and he confronted M. Cesar with an air of triumph.
"The man denied it, did he not? He said he went into the house to
steal and found Berthe murdered, and fled. Is it not so?"
"Now attend. How do you account for the fact that they found
nothing on him--neither the missing gold nor the diamonds wrenched
from the bracelet?"
"He had an accomplice, of course. He stood under the window while
the man, after he murdered Berthe, dropped the loot out of the
window. A brooch was found on the grass. The rear gate was open."
"Ah no, Monsieur. I flung that brooch out of the window. I have
that gold, those diamonds in my desk at home. Come with me."
For a moment M. Cesar turned gray and the shoulders that had
supported a musket so gallantly in 1870 sagged as if old age had
suddenly made its perch there. But he shook himself angrily erect.
Did he not know Louis and his delusions? Was the poor boy ever
actually on the mortal plane? Had not he himself, twice summoned by
Seraphine, poured scalding coffee down his throat? Undoubtedly he had
loved Berthe and been inspired at last, for during the first hours of
his own grief and horror he had dared to intrude upon the high priest
at his altar, and met the unseeing eyes of a genius in ecstasy. No
wonder he was nearly mad with grief now.
There was nothing but to humor him. Once more he took his arm, and
led him out into the street. Slowly the two men climbed the hills
through the fog, for one, though gallant, was no longer young, and
the other, although tragically young, was very weak. When they
reached the foot of the steep incline which led up to the old Bac
mansion M. Dupont cunningly would have passed on, but Louis swung
about peremptorily, and the philosophical old boulevardier, who cared
for no further argument or confiscation of his precious evening
hours, shrugged his shoulders and followed his erratic young friend
up and into the house.
The economical Seraphine never left a light burning in the hall.
Louis struck a match and led the way into the old double parlors he
used as his study, and lit a gas-jet. M. Cesar sat down on one of the
horsehair chairs and opened his cigar-case.
"Mon Dieu!" he cried. "What a way to live in this amiable world.
Fireless, dank, chairs stuffed with rocks. No wonder you look as if
you had been in cold-storage."
"Oh, do not trouble yourself to light a cigar, Monsieur. It will
go out, I assure you."
He pulled open a drawer of his desk and pointed to a pile of loose
gold and half a dozen diamonds of fair size.
M. Cesar experienced an awful feeling of disintegration. The cigar
fell from his relaxed hand and he sagged as far back in the chair as
its uncompromising back would permit. He stared at the contents of
the drawer throughout a long moment while he shivered with the
impression that the waters of death were rising in that bleak and
horribly silent room. But at the end of those sixty indelible seconds
he sat very erect and the angry color rushed to his face.
"No!" he exclaimed. "That is not evidence. I am quite unconvinced.
I have not the least idea how much gold Berthe had in her desk, and
one gold-piece is like another. I am a judge of diamonds, for I,
alas! have bought many; but diamonds of the same size and water are
as hard to identify. Those, no doubt, were your mother's."
"My mother had no diamonds. And what do you suppose I do with
diamonds in my desk?"
"Properties, no doubt. How do I know that you have not in another
drawer burglars' kits and tools, and all the other instruments of
destruction with which your characters celebrate themselves? Those
diamonds were larger than any poor Berthe possessed."
"They may have looked small in the heavy art nouveau setting. I
noticed the bracelet the night of the dinner."
"I never saw it until I saw it in ruins. Let me see those stones."
Louis gathered them up and poured them into M. Cesar's steady hand.
The old Frenchman felt of them, held them up to the light, flung them
back contemptuously into the drawer. "Paste! I thought as much. For
why should you buy real diamonds? As for Berthe--what few stones the
poor child had were genuine. She could neither afford stones of that
size nor would she condescend to wear paste."
"Do you mean to say you will not believe me?" Louis looked sharply
at M. Cesar.
It was quite natural that this amiable gentleman should not choose
to believe he had blindly nourished a viper. And not, perhaps,
motivated by pride and affection alone. He was kind and charitable
and a keen man of business, but pleasure was his god. No man had
extracted more juice from the sweet apple of life than he, tasted
less of its ashes. It was quite in keeping that he should refuse to
have his pleasant pastures sown with horrors a second time.
M. Dupont rose. "I shall send you a sleeping-powder from the
chemist's. To-morrow you will take the eleven-thirty train for Santa
Barbara, spend a month in my mother's charming home at Montecito, and
forget that you are a poor genius subject to plots at the wrong time.
That, or a sanatorium. Do you comprehend, my friend?"
Louis turned away with a hopeless gesture. "Oh, very well. Have
your own way."
"And you will be ready when I call for you at ten minutes past
"If I am awake."
"I shall go out the back way and tell Seraphine to awaken you. Now
I must leave you, as I have kept a very charming person waiting too
"Good night, Monsieur. I can tell Seraphine myself."
"Very well. I trust you to do so." Louis accompanied his guest
with extreme courtesy to the door. On the threshold M. Cesar paused
and looked back into the dark house with a shudder. "Ciel, but it is
a tomb! I cannot take you with me this evening, but you can go to the
club and sleep there."
"Many thanks, Monsieur, but this house is not a tomb to me. It is
"True. A thousand pardons. Au revoir, mon fils."
It was two o'clock in the morning when Louis laid down his pen. He
had confessed in minute detail to the killing of Berthe Dupont,
entering into an elaborate and brilliant analysis of the primary
causes, the successive phases of a more extended psychological
process than he had realized at the time, the final impulse, and, as
far as possible, the pathological condition of his brain during the
act and the minor acts that followed. He added that while he found it
impossible to feel remorse in the common sense, as through this
abominable crime he had achieved the passionate ambition and desire
of his life and a period of indescribable joy, he felt that as a
member of society, however indifferent, it was now his duty to make
atonement. As M. Dupont had convinced him that his story would not be
believed, that, in fact, the authorities would incarcerate him in a
lunatic asylum if he persisted in declaring his guilt, he had
determined to act for himself.
He made his confession, he further added, not to clear the name of
the poor derelict who had paid the penalty for a crime of which he
was innocent, but in the interest of science, which would welcome
this voluntary revelation of creative psychology. He believed that
other serious writers of fiction, those illustrious men who had
written to him with a spontaneous sense of brotherhood, would
understand and exonerate. He had cast his soul and his body on the
altar of art, and no man had ever done more.
He had written the confession in French and English. He addressed
one manuscript to the leading morning newspaper of San Francisco, the
other to the literary critic of a great journal in Paris. Then he
took a large key from a drawer of his desk and left the house. He
dropped the two packages in a mail-box at the foot of the hill, and
waited long and wearily for a car. They were infrequent at this hour,
but he felt too tired to walk to the outskirts of the city. The night
was chill and the fog was dense, but when the car finally came along
he took a seat on the front of the dummy, for he dreaded the lights
within, of meeting some one, perhaps, who would recognize and speak
When he reached the end of the line he was shivering, and
involuntarily he pulled his coat-collar about his ears and thrust his
hands into his pockets as he walked rapidly up the hill to the
He knew all the cemeteries on Lone Mountain well, for he often
walked there, reading the names on the shafts and mausoleums and
reconstructing the history of early San Francisco, of which the dust
below had been so fiery an impulse. Henri Bac I. had built a
mausoleum here, too, for he felt that as a pioneer he should have a
permanent resting-place among the dead who had made history. He had,
indeed, been a member of the two great Vigilance Committees, had
played his part on more than one occasion as an active citizen who
could do somewhat more for the swaddling city than teach its
adventurous spirits how to distinguish between stomach and
Louis, who had always been a dutiful son, had come out here every
Sunday in all weathers and placed a wreath on the little altar in the
dim interior of the vault, knelt automatically for a moment beneath
the shelves behind which his parents were sealed.
He unlocked the heavy door; then, as it swung slowly inward, he
turned and glanced down over the sleeping city he had loved in his
own impersonal fashion. The fog moved like the tides of the sea whose
boom came faintly to him. Here and there a shaft from an arc-light
shone faintly through, but for the most part San Francisco was the
black depths of a ghostly inland sea.
Above him the night was clear. The cross on Calvary stood out like
ebony against the glittering sky, a gay and spangled sky as if all
the great planets and all the little courtesan stars up there were
ready for a night of carnival and laughing at gloomy old Earth.
For a moment Louis hesitated. He was a Catholic by training, and
to certain crimes the Church is merciless. But he reasoned that he no
more had the right to call himself a Catholic than to persist as a
mortal. He went into the vault and swung the heavy door behind him.
It clanged faintly, but there was no one to hear.